Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Return of House of Cards

Over the weekend, Netflix released the third season of its original content juggernaut, House of Cards. The saga of Frank Underwood has been wildly popular with audiences, largely due to its fast pace, high stakes, and the captivating performance of leading man Kevin Spacey (so I'm told, anyways -- I've never seen it). The show is particularly popular with students at CMC, who often use it as a reference point for discussing the logic of politics and the culture of Washington D.C (it has even been mentioned a handful of times in this class).

But the release of the new season has been met with some ire -- specifically, from a Washington Post entertainment blogger who wrote an opinion piece entitled "'House of Cards' insults our intelligence." In her analysis, critic Alyssa Rosenberg lambastes the show's "faux-sophistication," arguing that: 

"[i]f “House of Cards” mistakes the Underwoods’ emotional decision-making for hard-headed manipulation, it’s also strangely inconsistent on the subject of political real talk. During Claire’s confirmation hearing, she actually appears surprised when senators object after she accuses them of grandstanding, assuming that they will prioritize her substantive answers over gaffes. In that moment, her view of the world makes Leslie Knope look as conniving as Lyndon Johnson."
This is not the first time these charges have been levied against House of Cards; similar claims were made last year in an article by Grantland staff writer Andy Greenwald in response to the show's second season. Like Rosenberg, Greenwald argued that, while some observers may regard Beau Willmon's show as a serious and pithy take-down of American politics, the reality is that "House of Cards doesn't reveal anything about Washington, D.C; it merely revels in its worst tendencies.

Greenwald's statements about the show's relationship with the American political news media are particularly pertinent to our class; at one point, Greenwald compares the show's political mindset to that of Politico, saying that both portray the government "with all the nuance of a box score." Later, he criticizes various American media personalities for their choice to validate the show's provocative portrayal of D.C. by making cameo appearances:

"[W]hat truly rankled about House of Cards this year was the way its cynical water was carried throughout by a truly impressive stream of real-life journalists. Was there a single prominent political reporter able to resist the siren song of his or her own ego and refuse an invitation to cameo? From industry exemplars like CBS’s Morley Safer and CNN’s Candy Crowley to ideological opposites Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, dozens of would-be truth seekers raced enthusiastically for the chance to revel in fiction. That the show cast them all as eager matadors, waving in futility as the facts bullied past them, is an irony that was apparently beyond their collective investigative acumen.

Or perhaps it wasn't an irony at all. Unlike the show’s crusading inventions Zoe Barnes, Janine Skorsky, and this season’s Ayla Sayyad, the goof troop of actual reporters, by their very presence, offered an effective endorsement of the type of D.C. journalism that dominates our discourse today: One that is obsequious in the presence of power and deferential to celebrity, one that privileges faux-sober 'even-handedness' at the expense of truth. It’s a journalism that is loath to rattle institutional cages lest it cost someone a seat at the table. By inviting the likes of John King and Soledad O’Brien inside the joke, House of Cards allows would-be gadflies to reaffirm their preferred role as gatekeepers. They’re not important, but they play important on TV."

Implicit in Rosenberg's argument (and, via the discussion on HBO's vulgar but outstanding comedy Veep, explicit in Greenwald's argument) is the assumption that, while television and film about politics may ostensibly be "just entertainment," they have the capacity to illustrate complicated political processes, present nuanced and deep case studies in political theory, and heavily influence the way we understand our government. What is so odious about House of Cards, according to these two critics, is that the show doesn't do any of that -- it merely acts under the pretense that it does, and in doing so it perpetuates an image of Washington which is cheap, cynical, and ultimately detrimental to the national discourse.

Now, with all that being said, I'd like to restate that I've never actually watched the show; but I have heard people at CMC heap praise upon House of Cards, and I thought it might be interesting to present a couple contrasting opinions. I also would enjoy any arguments from fans in the class who would want to respond to these criticisms (especially Greenwald's criticism of the news media's fondness of the show).

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